Limitless ***½ What would you do if you were to acquire superhuman abilities? Would you use your newfound gifts to fight crime and generally try to protect humanity from all the evil out there or would you rather use your powers for personal gain, turning yourself from a penny-less and aimless loser into a rich and successful winner in just a few days? This is one of the key ideas explored in The Dark Fields, the 2001 techno-thriller novel by Irish writer Alan Glynn that forms the basis for Hollywood movie Limitless (the novel having recently been re-released under the title of the film to coincide with its release), a film about a character who, after taking a top secret drug, develops abilities that could definitely be described as superhuman but who decides to use them for his own selfish ends rather than become a superhero – which is, face it, what most people probably would do if they were to develop such abilities; no one would really go out and fight crime would they?
With only the 2008 film Jumper, which dealt with a very different kind of superhuman ability to the one here – that film was about teleportation, this one is about unlocking the full potential of the human brain, something that physics professor James Kakalios, the author of book The Physics of Superheroes which considers comic book superheroes from the standpoint of fundamental physics, says could plausibly be achieved through medical science but not at the current level of advancement in neurochemistry – having really taking this approach to superhuman abilities recently, this is a film that provides a refreshing change to the usual films about people developing superhuman abilities where they always use their powers to fight crime and defeat villains (not that I’m complaining about all the current superhero movies, I personally love them) and there is definite potential for something very different to be done here. Whether or not they’ve truly got the right people behind the camera, though, is a big question, it being most likely that you will never have heard of even the director of the writer, even though the writer’s track record is quite extensive and includes a number of high profile films.
Directed by Neil Burger, the man behind the very good 2006 Edward Norton mystery drama The Illusionist, who is making his first foray solely as a director with this film – he both wrote and directed all three of his previous films – and written by screenwriter Leslie Dixon, who acquired the rights to the source material herself and wrote the adapted screenplay for less than her normal cost in exchange for being made one of the film’s producers, and whose track record to date showcases a range of films that vary in quality and style, among them The Thomas Crown Affair, Freaky Friday, Just Like Heaven, Hairspray and The Heartbreak Kid, the collective track records of these two people don’t necessarily suggest a film that is wholly substantial but the presence of heavy hitting stars Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro as the leading members of the cast suggests a slick and high profile production as does the level of attention the film has been receiving ahead of its release, Limitless – which was originally going to be released under the name The Dark Fields just like the book – in no way being a blockbuster and yet having received the level of marketing and publicity that is normally reserved for bit hitting movies.
But does Limitless truly live up to the extensive hype that has preceded it or, like so many Hollywood movies, as of late does it find itself very much limited by the apparent notion in Hollywood that most moviegoers would rather watch something dumb and forgettable than a truly intelligent film that really makes us think? Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a slacker and an author who has failed to write a single word of his novel, his aimlessness in life having destroyed his marriage to ex-wife Melissa (Anna Friel) and his relationship with girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) who is tired of having to look after him while he does nothing with his life. His life truly is headed nowhere until a chance encounter with Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), his drug dealing former brother-in-law, changes his life forever. Vernon introduces Eddie to a brand new mind-expanding drug that allows a user’s brain to function at 100%. With little chance of ever writing his book otherwise, Eddie tries it and with just one pill he is suddenly transformed into a whole new person – and to stay that way he just has to do is take one pill every day.
Writing his entire novel in just a few days, the new abilities unlocked by the drug make him super intelligent, enable him to learn new languages at lightning speed, and allow him to master the complexities of Wall Street, in the process becoming a millionaire due to his superhuman ability to predict how stocks are going to perform, something that brings him to the attention of tyrannical businessman Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro), who wants to use Eddie for his own purposes but doesn’t realise that it is really Eddie who is using him. Become super rich, mega powerful and even winning Lindy back, Eddie’s success comes at a price. When taken frequently, the drug has negative side effects, among them the mind skipping time, and Eddie soon falls prey to them and finds himself incriminated in a murder investigation as a result. Worse still, everyone wants a piece of his success, including gangster Gennady (Andrew Howard) and a mysterious man (Tomas Arana) who has been following him, and they seem willing to kill to get it.
Without the drug he is a loser but with it he is limitless but is the price really worth paying? It is very difficult nowadays to make something truly original in Hollywood and, with CGI dominating many a blockbuster movie and every trick of the camera seemingly having been exploited, it is even harder to create visuals that any particular film can call its own – yet Limitless has managed to do just that. With camerawork and editing that are truly sensational and an array of incredible and eye-popping visual touches – including fractal zooms that take us right through New York City in seconds flat, shots that see the camera tracking up the side of a high rise building, scenes featuring multiple Eddies, letters falling around Eddie and forming words as they fall, and ceiling tiles flipping over to reveal stock statistics – that probably won’t be quite like anything you’ve seen on the big screen before, the look of the film really is fresh and distinctive.
Slick cinematography and a unique visual style also ensure that the film doesn’t simply look fantastic but also has a very polished veneer that is very appropriate considering the upscale world most of the film’s events take place in. The visuals are extremely multilayered but the same sadly cannot be said of the plot. With the film starting near the end of the story as Eddie is seemingly about to jump off the side of a building while some kind of massacre appears to be taking place in the apartment behind him, we are awarded a glimpse of the potentially grisly final act, a glimpse that suggests the film may be headed somewhere quite grandiose. As it transpires, however, this is not the case. If there is one thing that really holds this film back from being as good as it so clearly could be it is a lack of ambition on the part of the filmmakers.
On several occasions it is hinted that Eddie is a part of something much bigger than himself but, with the focus purely on him and his using of his abilities to achieve apparently selfish ends – although it is suggested that he has a greater purpose in mind, one hinted at by the ending but only really alluded to rather than actually explored – there is no exploration of the bigger picture, the plot sometimes feeling like a big tease for one far more interesting than that that we are getting here, what we get here essentially being a yuppie drug movie and, with the film failing to delve into the deeper ramifications of the drug and its effects – the negative effects are dealt with to a small extent in scenes depicting Eddie’s increasing mental unhingedness as a result of the drug but, after seemingly coming close to death at the drug’s hands, he completely recovers just by taking the drug again and experiences no more ill effects afterwards – not a particularly memorable one.
The ending once again hints at something bigger, a sense of foreboding suggesting major upcoming events that we will never be witness to, this really summing up that the plot here is screaming of wasted potential. Fortunately, with dialogue occasionally proves quite snappy, the acting is generally pretty good even if, perhaps somewhat appropriately, many of the cast members are not utilised to their full potential – perhaps some of the other characters are in need of a pill. Bradley Cooper’s natural charisma makes for a character who is immensely likable even as he is using his abilities for wholly selfish purposes and he also proves quite believable in his portrayal of his character. His transformation from washed up loser to super intelligent winner is sudden and instant but also completely convincing and, shifting between the two sides of his personality – as well as a third as he finds himself afflicted by the negative effects of the drug – he convinces on both counts, looking and acting appropriately washed up as the former and looking and act very suave as the latter. Acting with his voice, his eyes and his body movements, he also nails the jittery motions and demeanour of a drug addict, making his character’s struggles with the effects of the drug believable also. The rest of the cast don’t fare quite as well but this is due to undemanding roles not weak performances.
Robert De Niro, in a role that echoes Michael Douglas’ character from Wall Street, seems somewhat underused, his character not giving him a particularly meaty role to work with. Abbie Cornish, meanwhile, is a strong romantic interest but, aside from one scene, she rarely gets to be more than that. As for the other major players, Andrew Howard portrays a fairly generic and sadistic Russian villain, Anna Friel hardly features and only Johnny Whitworth proves particularly noteworthy, imbuing his character with an effortless smooth talking but also sleazebag like charm. So, Limitless is a film that may slick and shiny on the surface but is held back by the lack of deeper insight.
Regardless, however, it showcases some of the most unique visuals seen in a Hollywood film for a long while and, with several chases featuring and Eddie also gaining the ability to fight, something which is displayed in a well executed fight scene, the film also proves reasonably exciting. If nothing else it is an entertaining ride and an enjoyable and interesting but nonetheless flawed thriller. Considering that the title of the film is Limitless it is somewhat ironic that the film is actually very limited in its scope.
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)